Tag Archives: Hebrew

A history of Hebrew, told one word at a time

Ben and Jerry's ice cream in Israel is labeled "glida," the Aramaic word for frost. In modern Hebrew, it means ice cream. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in Israel is labeled “glida,” the Aramaic word for frost. In modern Hebrew, it means ice cream. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Here’s a guest post from Daniel Estrin, who lives in Jerusalem.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the history of words over centuries.

In Israel, linguists are still compiling a similar dictionary for the ancient Hebrew language.

English as we know it has been around about 860 years.

“Without bragging, the history of Hebrew is much older,” said Gabriel Birnbaum, a senior researcher at Israel’s official Academy of the Hebrew Language. About three times older.

Birnbaum’s job is to write the entries for the Hebrew Historical Dictionary. Four days a week, seven hours a day, he sits alone in his small office, surrounded by dusty volumes of ancient Hebrew texts, and types out definitions.

“The ideal is to have all the words with all their history, how they started, when they started to be used, the whole of the treasure of the Hebrew language,” said Birnbaum. “The English have it, the French have it, the Hungarians have it, so we should also have it.”

Hebrew was born around the 12th century BC. It’s the language of the Bible; Jesus knew Hebrew. But a few decades after Jesus’ death, Jews were exiled from the Holy Land, and they adopted different languages.

“Hebrew for 1,700 years wasn’t spoken by anyone,” Birnbaum said. “Some people call it a dead language. But if it was dead, it was a very lively corpse.”

A boy reads the ancient Hebrew text from a Torah scroll at his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

A boy reads the ancient Hebrew text from a Torah scroll at his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

It really wasn’t dead at all. Jews wrote their literature and liturgy in Hebrew, and recited prayers in Hebrew, as they do to this day. In the late 19th century, waves of Jews moved to the Holy Land, and revived Hebrew as a spoken language.

But how do you order ice cream in an ancient tongue?

“They didn’t have words for office, or eyeglasses, or for matches,” said Birnbaum. “So from where will we take this? Of course we can coin new words. But first we have to use all the words we have in our sources.”

That’s how the mysterious Biblical word chashmal, referring to God appearing with fire and light, became the modern word for electricity. In an ancient Aramaic translation of a Biblical passage, manna from heaven is described as thin as frost, or glida. Today, glida is the frosty stuff you order at the ice cream parlor.

Hebrew is based on “roots,” patterns of letters that are the building blocks of the language. The three-letter combination in the word “write” also appears in the words for “article,” “reporter,” “letter,” “spelling,” “address,” and anything having to do with writing.

More than half of the roots in modern Hebrew come straight from the Bible.

“If I give you a text of Old English, you won’t understand a word. Those words have changed a lot,” Birnbaum said. “Now you take an Israeli child, you give him a text from the Book of Genesis, or a text from the Book of Samuel, he can understand, not to exaggerate, 70 percent of it. He can understand it.”

The Hebrew Language Academy began compiling its historical dictionary in 1959, but only came out with a first edition in 2005. There are many words from the past few thousand years to comb through, not to mention all the new words of the last century.

Linguists at the Hebrew Language Academy are still coining new words for terms that didn’t exist in the Bible or the Middle Ages – and Israelis often email the language academy to request new words.

Staffer Tzipi Senderov said there’s been high demand lately for one particular word.

“People always write the same thing. ‘I need to know the Hebrew term for cupcake,’” Senderov said. “Then we have to say, ‘There is no alternative,’ and people are like, ‘Why, can’t you find an alternative?’”

They did. The Hebrew Language Academy has posted two options online for the public to choose from. So far the more popular choice is ugoneet, which in English translates to “mini-cake.” The other contender is mufeen mekushat, or “decorated muffin.”

Do these alternatives to cupcake sound tasty?

“No, and it wouldn’t catch, whatsoever,” Senderov said. “That’s the problem.”

All the Hebrew Language Academy’s new words will eventually end up in the historical dictionary. But sometimes, its new words just don’t catch on.

At birthday parties across Israel, a cupcake may just stay a cupcake.


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The world according to Gary Shteyngart in four languages

Photo: Random House/Brigitte Lacombe

Photo: Random House/Brigitte Lacombe

Gary Shteyngart writes in English, but his memoir draws on the Russian and Yiddish of his Leningrad childhood, and the Hebrew of his schooling in New York.

The memoir is called “Little Failure.” The title is based on an English-Russian mashup expression (“failure” plus a Russian diminutive) invented by his mother.

“I love the way [my parents] play with language,” says Shteyngart. “Even when it’s a little bit hurtful.”

Hurtful goes both ways in Shteyngart’s family. “Little Failure” won’t be a comfortable read for his parents. It’s full of fraught family moments—and worse. The memoir also delves into the past, documenting the terrible suffering of some Shteyngart’s grandparents and great-grandparents.

And although his parents do have a copy of the book, Shteyngart says their English isn’t great, so they may wait till the Russian translation comes out.

Shteyngart has previously written three novels, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story.” The memoir reads like a novel—gripping narratives, expertly-etched characters, telling details.

When Shteyngart was seven, his family moved from the Soviet Union to the United States. Like many Soviet Jews they’d been trying to leave for years to escape anti-Semitism. But Soviet authorities blocked the immigration of many Jews until they could strike a deal with the United States. It was 1979. The Russians needed grain—their harvest had failed. So they allowed Jews to leave in exchange for American grain.

So the family became “Grain Jews.”

“I was worth maybe 300 loaves and a croissant or something,” says Shteyngart. “I don’t know who got the better deal.”

The family settled in New York, where Gary was sent to Hebrew school. He didn’t bother too much with learning Hebrew. He was more interested in picking up English from TV shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

At the dinner table, though, the family spoke only in Russian, for which Shteyngart is grateful now.

“Retaining Russian meant retaining all those memories,” he says. “Whenever I write, it’s in English but there’s always a Russian soundtrack in the back.”

It took Shteyngart about seven years to lose his Russian accent: “Lots of practice in front of a mirror.”

He would repeat words he couldn’t pronounce, trying to “get rid of a bunch of consonants to get English right.”

One such word: attic. The family had moved to an apartment with an attic and Shteyngart was anxious to master this expression. But one of those pesky extra consonants came back to bite him. He pronounced it addict, as in: “We have a new apartment with an addict.”

Shteyngart recently became a father for the first time. He’s relieved that his son wasn’t born into the kind of calamitous world experienced by previous generations of Shteyngarts.

“The Yiddish word is tsuris—troubles,” he says. “I don’t know what the future is going to hold. I mean pretty soon, Manhattan might be underwater, so I hope this kid learns how to swim real good. But there is a feeling that…he’s growing up in relatively wonderful circumstances.”

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    Hamas Puts Hebrew in the Curriculum

    Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

    Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

    Here’s a guest post from my Big Show pal Matthew Bell

    One place that was not on President Obama’s Middle East itinerary this week was the Gaza Strip. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton was the first sitting US president to visit Gaza. He even brought the first lady along. But with the Islamic militant group Hamas in firm control of the Palestinian territory, it’s tough to imagine a sitting US president setting foot there.

    Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist. So, it might come as a surprise to hear that Hamas-run schools in Gaza have started offering Hebrew language classes. Government-run schools in Gaza put the main language of the Jewish State on the curriculum at the start of the school year.

    In a spartan classroom of ninth-grade girls at the Hassan Salma co-ed school in Gaza City, teacher and students begin what feels like a scripted routine for some visitors.

    “What’s the capital of Palestine,” the teacher asks in Hebrew?

    “Jerusalem,” the students respond in unison.

    Thess are some of the first Gaza public school students to study Hebrew in nearly 20 years. Nadine al-Ashy is a 14 year-old with a knack for languages. She say Hebrew is, “easier than English.” And of course, “it’s the language of our enemy.”

    “We must know how they think, how they talk about us.”

    Almost everyone I speak with in Gaza gives me some version of a common Arabic expression that goes like this: learn to speak the language of your enemy, so you can protect yourself from his evil deeds.

    Nadine’s Hebrew teacher, Maysam Sayyid il-Khatib says there was a lot of interest in signing up for Hebrew class. So, I ask, is there any chance this could somehow lead to better relations between Israelis and Palestinians?

    “No,” she responds matter-of-factly. “We are not looking for developing things with the Israelis. We are learning Hebrew to protect ourselves and to defend our country from the Israeli occupation.”

    On the streets of Gaza City, it’s easy to find people who speak good Hebrew.

    Like most middle-aged men in Gaza, a 44 year-old taxi driver who gives his name as Saber speaks Hebrew fluently. He worked in Israel for 12 years, back in the days when tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza had jobs there. He says more young people in Gaza should be learning Hebrew.

    Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

    Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

    “At home, I watch Israeli TV every day. Not just the news, but movies too and I read Israeli newspapers,” Saber says.

    These sources in Hebrew offer insight and perspective that is missing from the Arabic language media. Saber says his kids don’t really understand Hebrew. But he wants them to start. Never mind the fact that few Palestinians from Gaza are allowed into Israel. Saber suggests that it is especially important to hear what Israelis are saying about the Gaza Strip during times of war.

    There are 400 government-run schools in Gaza. Only 20 of them offer Hebrew as an elective for 9th graders. But Hamas officials want to expand the program. Mohamed Abu Shuqair is deputy minister of education.

    “Why Hebrew,” the minister asks? “Even if we don’t agree with the Israelis on many things,” he says during an inteview at his office, “we are still living in the same region. Israel is more developed than Gaza. Palestinians can learn from Israeli TV and websites.”

    There is another reason for putting Hebrew on the high school curriculum, Abu Shuqair says. “Many people say Hamas in Gaza is close-minded,” he says. “We are so open-minded, that we even teach the language of our enemy here.”

    That might be debatable. But there does seems to be a tacit acknowledgement in this decision on teaching Hebrew. The Hamas leadership appears to be looking toward Israel, with its stronger economy – rather than Egypt, with its new Islamist-dominated government – for the sake of Gaza’s future.



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    What’s in a Street Name? In Jerusalem, Plenty

    Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, at a ceremony to unveil the newly named Umm Kulthum Street in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

    Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell.

    Google maps is a handy tool for navigating the streets of West Jerusalem. The roads the city’s Jewish neighborhoods might be a bit confusing to newcomers, but even the most insignificant of hidden alleyways will have a name and appear on your smartphone. The Arab sections of East Jerusalem are a different story. Take a look at this map and notice how all street names suddenly vanish as you enter the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood.

    A convenience store owner who gave his name as Mahmoud told me he gives directions to places in Jabal Mukabbir by using landmarks. “It’s past the United Nations building, near the school, down the road from the cemetery,” he said. “If you pass the mosque, you’ve gone too far.”

    A basic annoyance can turn into a tragedy though. “If you need to order the ambulance, [or] somebody [is] sick,” Mahmoud said, “it’s a big problem.”

    Mahmoud told me he has seen more than one incident of people in his neighborhood having a heart attack and dying as paramedics struggled to find the victim’s house. The trouble is, ambulances are dispatched from the Jewish side of town.

    View of the Old City from the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood (Photo: Matthew Bell)

    But this is something Jerusalem’s mayor said he wants to solve by starting to officially name hundreds of streets in Arab neighborhoods.

    An Arab-Israeli singer serenaded Mayor Nir Barkat during a recent ceremony in the Beit Hanina neighborhood. Community leaders had proposed naming a one-block residential street there after Umm Kulthum, the famous Egyptian singer.

    Barkat said naming streets in Arab East Jerusalem is a strategic step for the city.

    “We’re going to cover all names, streets names and street numbers, to all the houses in East Jerusalem.”

    Some Arab residents hear that and say, it’s about time. East Jerusalem has been under Israeli rule since 1967 and only now is the city starting put up street signs.

    Akram Abadwan attended the ceremony with the mayor in Beit Hanina. When I asked him about the street naming initiative, he just shook his head, saying the Israelis are not really interested in improving Arab neighborhoods.

    “Look what they’ve been doing all day, they’ve been fixing the roads,” Abadway said. “Just because the mayor’s coming.”

    “I wish they had that same energy on a daily basis,” he said.

    Instead of street names, Abadwan wanted to talk about the demolition of Arab homes and the Jewish groups settling in Arab sections of East Jerusalem. If the city puts a stop to those things, he said, then he will be less cynical.

    An intersection of two unnamed streets (Photo: Matthew Bell)


    Others are more pragmatic. Hossam Wattad is a community activist in East Jerusalem.

    “We need basic services,” Wattad said. “Mail delivery, ambulance services, utilities. Just giving people simple directions to your house requires street names and building numbers. People pay taxes to the city,” he said. “Let’s get to work on improving the quality of life in East Jerusalem.”

    Mayor Barkat conceded that some Jerusalem neighborhoods have been neglected by the city.

    One of the biggest complaints from Arab residents over the years has been the difficulty in obtaining building permits. That means many newer buildings in Arab neighborhoods are considered illegal by the city. Barkat told me that dealing with the issue is all part of his program that begins with naming streets.

    “We’re actually going through a process of re-zoning, [a] very liberal approach to re-zoning,” he said.

    “The challenge is to enable a path of both upgrading and making the houses legal. Indeed, it’s part of the process and the strategy and the public policy that I have, accepted by all of the municipality.”

    But many Palestinians would not accept Barkat’s vision for Jerusalem. They hope to make the city the capital of a future Palestinian state. And they are still wary of cooperating with what they see as the Israeli occupation, even on something as seemingly tame as putting up street signs.

    This video was produced by the Israeli government:

    Want to hear more on street naming? Here’s a podcast on provocative street-naming in Israel and the Occupied Territories.



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    Mistaking Welsh For Hebrew in Libya



    Outside of Wales, Welsh is a profoundly obscure language, to the point that some may think it extinct or invented. In Libya, Welsh is no more real than Elvish.

    That linguistic obscurity led to two British journalists being detained in post-Gaddafi Libya on suspicion of spying.

    Below are two versions of what took place. The first is as reported by the journalists themselves. The second is how I imagine their captors saw it (I can only imagine this; the militiamen have no spoken publicly).

    The journalists say they were out late one night in Tripoli when they were detained by a militia group called the Misrata Brigade. In the absence of much central authority, and in the presence of large numbers of guns, militia groups tend to act as Libya’s main law enforcers.

    The journalists, Gareth Montgomery-Johnson and Nicholas Davies-Jones, were taken to a military compound where they told their captors they worked for Iranian broadcaster Press TV. But the Libyans appeared not to believe them. It didn’t help that they had no visas or official approval for being in the country.

    The men’s hotel room was searched, their video footage viewed. Another unhelpful detail: there was video of one of the two firing an automatic weapon.

    Then there were the bandages. Montgomery-Johnson’s father is a nurse who lives in Wales. He gave his son some bandages to take to Libya, just in case. The wrapping on the bandages had writing on it, some of it in Welsh. But Montgomery-Johnson said their captors mistook the Welsh for Hebrew. And so the two journalists became suspected Israeli spies. No matter that Welsh, which uses the Latin alphabet, and Hebrew look as different as Arabic and Chinese do.

    It took three weeks before the men were released and the Libyan government apologized.

    So now, from the militiamen’s perspective…

    They pick up two British guys who are out late at night. The two don’t have permission to be in the country, but they say they work for a TV channel out of, of all places, Iran. That just doesn’t ring true. Don’t the Brits and the Iranians hate each other?

    Evidence from their video files suggests they’re doing military drills. What’s more, they’re expecting trouble: they have bandages. And what’s that language written on the packaging? If it were Hebrew—well, everything would fall into place. It must be Hebrew.

    But it wasn’t. And so the men were released.

    The only thing Welsh and Hebrew have in common is that they are both held up as success stories in language revival. But that is another story.

    Also in the podcast this week:

    • Gullah, Haitian Creole and other creoles spoken in the U.S. This is the second part of my conversation with Elizabeth Little, author of Trip of the Tongue: Cross-country Travels in Search of America’s Languages. The first part deals mainly with native American languages. Previous podcasts on various creoles are here, here, here, here and here.
    • Musician Wilko Johnson. The former Dr Feelgood guitarist speaks about his life growing up in Canvey Island, Essex. He still speaks with a thick Estuary English accent. What is less known about Johnson is that he studied Icelandic sagas at college and still speaks some Old Norse.

    Listen via iTunes or here.

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    The Voice of Iran in Spanish

    In early 2011, the BBC announced massive cuts in its foreign language services. We devoted an entire pod episode to that decision and its implications.

    At the time, London-based journalism professor George Brock warned of an imminent deluge of government-run foreign language broadcast channels. That’s certainly playing out. The Chinese and Russian government-run TV companies have fast-growing foreign language services. China’s CCTV now broadcasts in English, French, Russian and Arabic. And the Kremlin’s mutilingual network RT, recently made a splash when it announced that it would broadcast a 10-part series interview show hosted by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

    Now, Iran has got in on the act. In late January, it launched Hispan TV, a Spanish language service aimed at Latin America. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed up at the launch, making it clear that there would be no arm’s length policy between the politicians and the journalists on this project. He even uttered a few Spanish words: “Viva España , viva America Latina.”  He also said, according to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting that Hispan TV “is expected to convey a message of peace, friendship and freedom for all human beings, and at the same time to block or squeeze ways through which the global arrogance tried to dominate others.”

    Also in the pod this week:

    • The origins of an oft-used Hebrew expression to describe the segregation of women favored by some ultra-Orthodox Jews.
    • Scientists at UC Berkeley unveil technology that seeks to put words to our thoughts.
    • Why songs get stuck in our heads.

    Listen via iTunes or here.


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    Deciphering ancient script and contemporary politicos

    In this week’s podcast, another  five language stories that didn’t make headlines. Well, aside from the Sarah Palin one.  Discussing these stories with me are Rhitu Chatterjee, host of The World’s Science podcast, Clark Boyd, host of The World’s Technology podcast and Kevin II. Yup, that’s a picture of Kevin II, in The World’s broadcast studio.

    5. An Israeli-British study shows bilinguals may respond differently depending on the language of the questions. According to the study, Arab Israelis are more likely to respond warmly to certain Jewish names if they are asked about them in Hewbrew, as compared to Arabic. Does this mean we think differently in different languages? No, but it might help explain why someone who is bilingual (or trilingual in Rhitu’s case) is “more polite” in one language.

    4. New research points to a possible breakthrough in deciphering ancient scripts.

    3. Sarah Palin compares her coinage of new English words to Shakespeare’s. Her most recent coinage, of course, was refudiate, which she said on Fox News and then tweeted a few days later. (She somewhat refudiated her own invention by zapping the tweet, before acknowledging it and making the Shakespeare comparison in a subsequent post.)  For his part, Shakespeare came up with gnarled, premediated, fitful, and hundreds more, none of them via Twitter. Maybe in time we’ll prize refudiate as highly. My guess though, is that like wee-wee’d up, an Obamaism, refudiate ain’t gonna make it. Let’s face it: most of Shakespeare’s coinages appear to have been based not on ignorance but inventiveness.

    2. A science writer argues in a Discover magazine blog post that language diversity condemns a society to poverty. I don’t fully understand the argument, but it made for a lively conversation.

    1. Clark’s adventures in linguistically confused Belgium. Yes, The World’s tech man about town has just moved to the land of beer, waffles and linguistic discontent. So which of the country’s two main languages should Clark learn, Dutch or French? And in choosing one, has he upset speakers of the other?  Mr Boyd reveals all, including the surprising nationality of the podcaster/language teacher he’s following.

    Listen in iTunes or here.

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    Praying in Spanish, new Hebrew names for planets, and a Danish hangover

    This is the new face of St Patrick’s Church in Lawrence, MA. Until recently, St Pat’s was a bastion of Irish-American culture. But Lawrence is a changed city — it’s now overwhelmingly Hispanic. In 2001, Father Paul O’Brien was dispatched there with orders to extend outreach to Lawrence’s  Dominicans and Puerto Ricans — its native Spanish speakers.  He increased the number of Spanish language masses, started Spanish Bible study groups and raised money for a community center that offered free meals to the city’s poor.  What happened next wasn’t pretty. Some old-time parishioners left the church; others contented themselves with leaving messages of hate on Father Paul’s voicemail. But nine years later, things have improved. Far more Spanish speakers worship at St Pat’s. And among the old-timers who remained, there’s acceptance, if sometimes grudging, that two languages, two cultures and two styles can co-exist in one church. All this — and much more — is documented in Scenes From a Parish, a film by James Rutenbeck that’s currently showing on PBS’s Independent Lens. (Check your local listings for repeats etc.) We play some excerpts, and talk to Rutenbeck and Father Paul.

    Also, how do you say Neptune and Uranus in Hebrew? The answer used to be: Neptune and Uranus (yes, it’s Uranus in the picture). Now the two planets have Hebrew names, thanks to the votes of interested Israelis, The Academy of the Hebrew Language and a panel of experts.  We English speakers are still stuck with Uranus but Hebrew speakers can now call that planet Oron. Neptune will now be known as Rahab.

    Finally, a New Year’s Day hangover courtesy of the good people of Denmark.

    Listen in iTunes or here.

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    Israel’s street sign vigilantes, learning Hindi, and your brain on language

    sign1This week, a mom-and-pop effort to restore Arabic script to street signs in Israel. Earlier this year, Israel’s new transport minister Israel Katz proposed an overhaul to his country’s road signs. So far they’ve been trilingual: Hebrew, Arabic and English. But Katz wants to remove Arabic and English city names and replace them with transliterations of the Hebrew names. So instead of the English word, “Jerusalem,” and the Arabic name for the city, “Al-Quds,” both languages would spell out “Yerushalayim,” the Hebrew name of the city. The proposal hasn’t been implemented yet. signs2But street signs in Israel have long been ideological battlegrounds: the Arabic has often been defaced or obliterated. That’s where Romy Achituv and Ilana Sichel (pictured right) come in. They are reinstating the Arabic, one sign at a time. So far the police haven’t stopped them. (Photos: Daniel Estrin)

    Also in this week’s podcast, I speak with author Katherine Russell Rich on learning Hindi at a language school in Rajasthan. Her book “Dreaming in Hindirich-dreaming1 is also an investigation into what happens to our brains when we learn a learn a language. Rich quizzed several neurolinguists, so she could get a handle on the challenges and all-round weird linguistic moments she encountered in her pursuit of Hindi mastery. So there are answers (not THE answers perhaps) to the following: what’s the difference between learning a language “intuitively” as a child and in a classroom setting later on? Why is it so difficult to have a perfect accent in your second or third language? Why do so many people verbally shut down for weeks or months  when learning a language? How does language effect personality and vice versa? And is there blowback from your learned language that changes how you speak your native tongue?

    On the subject of the last question, check out this fascinating conversation on The World’s science podcast on the latest research into what happens to your native tongue when you learn a second one. According to this study, you’ll never read your first language in the same way. Also, that cognates can trip you up.

    Finally, we cast a somewhat shameful eye over a tough-to-translate expression in Spanish.

    Listen in iTunes or here.

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